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Joe Tinker’s legend lives and makes Muscotah breathe

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 3, 2013, at 10:23 p.m.

— Sixty-five years after his death, and 105 years after he helped one of the hapless franchises in major-league history win its last World Series, Joe Tinker is still bringing hope to two American towns.

One, of course, is Chicago, where fondness for Tinker remains strong though no Cubs fans alive today ever saw him play. But through Tinker, who was part of four National League championship teams during a five-year span from 1906-10, hope perseveres.

The other is Muscotah, located on K-159 in northeast Kansas. It’s a town so small that Google Maps needs a flashlight to find it. It would take roughly 14,000 Muscotahs to equal one Chicago, but Tinker’s influence is viable in both.

He was born in Muscotah on July 27, 1880. His parents — Tinker’s father, Joe, was a contractor — lived in a small, framed house on the south side of town. Tinker spent five years in Muscotah before his family started a series of moves, but he did stay mostly in Kansas and graduated high school at Herington, according to baseball-reference.com.

Muscotah, surrounded by rich cornfields and the vast blue sky, is one of the many small towns across Kansas and America that are just getting by. But eight days ago, on Tinker’s 133rd birthday, Muscotah was rocking.

Close to 400 people crowded into town to watch a vintage baseball game and meet Tinker’s relatives — two grandsons and two great grandsons who had come from Maryland and California to be a part of the day.

They were treated like rock stars, asked to sign autographs and tell stories about their famous ancestor.

Jay Tinker, who is 74 and lives in a suburb of Baltimore, is the only one who met Joe. And it’s not so much Joe he remembers, but the burly man who approached them on a train in the mid-1940s, just as World War II was ending or about to end, he said.

“I was probably around 8 years old at the time and I was with my mother and my other grandfather and we were headed for Radio City Music Hall in New York City,” Jay Tinker said. “I was sitting on my grandfather’s lap and this big guys comes up and interrupts our conversation. Well, it was Babe Ruth.”

Jay’s attention turned to the Bambino, perhaps the most famous baseball player who had ever lived and whose massive career was in the history books.

“I could smell beer on him,” Jay Tinker said, “but Babe was a gentle, great guy. And my grandfather was just the opposite — high strung and quick to jump in somebody’s face.”

Joe Tinker played for the Cubs during most of his major-league career. A shortstop, he teamed with second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance to form one of baseball’s most famous double-play combinations.

Tinker to Evers to Chance elicited a 1910 poem from Franklin Pierce Adams, a devout New York Giants fan.

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,

“Tinker and Evers and Chance.”

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double –

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Tinker, Evers and Chance were inducted together into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee in 1946, though they combined for only 63 home runs in nearly 5,000 games.

They played during the dead-ball era, so homers were difficult to come by. Tinker, though, did have 114 triples and batted .262 during his 15-year career.

He’s not regarded as a Cubs all-time great, but he does have cachet in Chicago because of the team’s success when he, Evers and Chance were teammates.

That’s why there were a few Cubs fans in Muscotah last week for the birthday celebration. Townspeople are also building a Tinker museum, which will be housed inside what was the town’s water tower now designed as a huge baseball – “The World’s Largest Baseball,” the townspeople are calling it.

“Clearly, baseball was the common interest of the people who were there,” said Marci Penner, who works for the Kansas Sampler Foundation and helped organize the Tinker/Muscotah event.

Penner said of the 626 incorporated towns and cities in Kansas, half have fewer than 400 in population. The Kansas Sampler Foundation works as a catalyst for grass-roots efforts to help revive dying towns.

“You either let them die or help them empower those who have a desire to take things forward,” Penner said.

Muscotah, thanks partially to the town’s connection with a big-league legend, is holding its own.

“We’ve got people here now who are doing great,” said Tom Wilson, who has lived in Muscotah for all of his nearly 73 years. “The whole Joe Tinker thing kind of came to light about 15 or 20 years ago and ever since then it’s just grown. I think we had our first Tinker celebration back in 2002. Yeah, he’s helping us keep the town alive. At least his spirit is.”

There’s definitely a spirit among Muscotah’s small but energetic citizenry. They take Joe Tinker’s legend seriously and are also painting a mural of their famous son on the side of the concession stand in the town park.

The members of the Tinker family, all of whom were in Muscotah and Kansas for the first time, couldn’t believe what they were seeing on an unseasonably cool day during which rain threatened but never fell.

“All of this history about my great grandfather has come to mean a lot more to me,” said Christopher Tinker, 48, who sports a large tattoo of Joe Tinker on his left forearm. “This experience, at times, has brought tears to my eye. I just look around and see all of the passion of these people.”

As he spoke, Chris Tinker was constantly asked to sign something or to have his picture taken. As a soft-spoken car mechanic back in Baltimore, he was out of his element but not unhappy.

Richard Clapp, whose mother, Ruby, was Joe Tinker’s only daughter, had never met Jay Tinker or his sons, Chris and Jon.

Richard traveled to Muscotah from Palm Springs, Calif., so he could finally shake hands with those family members. He got a lot more.

“This wasn’t something that was on my bucket list two weeks ago,” Clapp said. “But now it’s a really good thing to cross off. It turns out that Muscotah is such a wonderful small town.”

And a place where Jay Tinker wishes he could live, if only he wasn’t so entrenched in Baltimore.

“I’m very, very strong in family values and it shines here like a light bulb,” he said. “I’ve been craving for this kind of small-town atmosphere because I really love to shoot, hunt and fish. I didn’t know what to expect today, but I’ve never felt as comfortable in any place that I’ve ever been. And I’ve been all over the world with the military.”

Jay Tinker found a park bench and sat down. He looked at all of the people who had come out to celebrate his grandfather’s day.

Somebody asked him if it was the best day he had ever had with Joe Tinker.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s probably true.”

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @blutz.

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